Ben Smith, Mark Boslet: Career Building Like A Startup: Thoughts On Reid Hoffman’s “The Start-up of You”

In the 40 years since the publication of What Color Is Your Parachute, the job market has collapsed, collapsed again and changed almost unrecognizably. The time has come for a new job hunter’s bible.

Our vote goes to Reid Hoffman’s and Ben Casnocha’s new book, The Start-up of You. We say this not because it bubbles up from the controlled chaos of Silicon Valley, where we both live. What distinguishes this new look at career building is its application of startup building techniques to the upheaval of the modern job market. It is an invitation to make your own luck through strategic networking.

We think enough of the slim treatise that my co-author, Ben T. Smith, IV, gave a copy to each business school graduate this year at the University of California, Davis and the Tepper Graduate School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.

What makes it thought provoking is its improvisation on traditional themes. What Color Is Your Parachute gave job seekers a new way to think about their professional passions and counseled them to target attractive jobs rather than lists of open positions. It worked, at the time.

The Start-up of You takes the process several steps further. It advises seekers to adjust constantly as markets change and to network 24/7, not just when you don’t have a paycheck. Opportunities are made, but you need to be in the right place at the right time, and that means laying the groundwork ahead of time.

To make its case, the book offers the example of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook. Sandberg took the risk of “pivoting” out of one profession into another when opportunity arose. She started at the World Bank working on public health projects in India, enrolled at Harvard Business School and joined former professor Larry Summers at the Treasury Department. There, networking led her to a conversation with then Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Sandberg, one of the most important value builders in the valley, also spent time at McKinsey & Company.

She asked Schmidt for career advice and received the observation that fast growing markets create opportunity. In short order Schmidt offered her a job at fast growing Google. The next step was Facebook.

Hoffman illustrates his new view of the job market as well with his own story of relationship building with Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus, whom he met when he was at PayPal a decade ago. “I felt inspired by Mark’s wild creativity and how at times he seems to bounce off the walls with energy,” Hoffman writes. “It’s our similar interests and vision that have made our collaborations so successful.”

The two invested in the social site Friendster, bought the Six Degrees patent, and then started their own social networks: Pincus, Tribe Networks; Hoffman, LinkedIn. The close association led Pincus to contact Hoffman when he created Zynga and to name him to the board. With that Hoffman gained access to one of the hottest Internet opportunities of the past few years.

That Hoffman’s or anyone’s career journey is long and unexpected is no surprise to many entrepreneurs. Ben Smith has his own war stories to tell and they are reflected in the advice he gives young job seekers, whether they are associates of his former firm, A.T. Kearney, new graduates, or budding valley engineers. Build a reputation by getting things done, develop a diversified portfolio of authentic, trusted relationships, and invest in your career with extra dedication and learning. In other words, play for the long term. This is, in our opinion, exactly what Hoffman and Casnocha are trying to say.

There are many useful observations in The Start-up of You. Here are several worth thinking about:

1) Use ABZ Planning. Plan A is what you’re doing right now. Plan B is what you pivot to, or shift to, when your Plan A roadmap takes an unexpected turn. Plan Z is your fallback position, the place you turn when your career goes up in smoke.

The process is full of trial and error. “ABZ Planning isn’t something you do once early in your career. It’s a process as important for someone in (his) forties or fifties as for a newly minted college grad,” say the two authors.

2) Build new school relationships. It is old school to contact someone only when you need something. Start building a rapport by doing someone a favor and don’t keep score. The first thing you should do in any new relationship is to find a way to contribute. Walk away from meetings with a couple of actions items on how you can help. As you develop a network, remember the fastest way to change yourself is to “hang out with people who are already the way you want to be,” Hoffman and Casnocha say.

3) Favor a quality social graph over a large one. Most people can maintain only between eight and 10 truly close professional alliances at one time. That’s not to say a Rolodex should only have 10 cards. But when it comes to real allies – people you would invite to dinner to brainstorm on career options or who will be in your corner during a fight – less can be more.

More casual relationships with people you e-mail occasionally or ask for small favors can run into the hundreds, perhaps thousands.

4) Invest in yourself and prioritize learning. “Develop habits of behavior and habits of thinking that increase the likelihood that you find yourself in the right place at the right time.” Take a curious person out to lunch and try to determine the source of their curiosity. Identify someone in your network who always has his or her hand in interesting things and learn how they find opportunities – potentially breakout ones. Court serendipity. Set aside a “yes” day and say yes all day. Join organizations. J.P Morgan belonged to 24 associations at the time of his death.

At MerchantCircle, Ben Smith’s company, there were a few people who started in one role and spent a lot of time learning new skills. This is not easy. It is not accomplished working 9 to 5. It takes an investment and a lot of hard work to look at SQL on the side when your primary responsibility is the community team.

At the same time, hard work is no guarantee of success. One young person at MerchantCircle who kept asking to be CEO, was offered a chance to dig in and learn product management on the side. He did not. He is still probably wondering four years later why he is not CEO of Facebook. It is important in any role to create options for later on.

5) Explore pivots. Have coffee with someone in an adjacent industry. Experiment with side projects. Set aside one day a month or every few months to work on something different, perhaps a business idea or a new skill you want to develop.

Building online payments provider PayPal wasn’t all smooth sailing from day one to its eBay acquisition, Hoffman and Casnocha remind us. The company changed its business model, brought on new executives and merged with another company before it was purchased.

Careers builders should be willing to adapt their “business models,” too. If you are at a big company, working for an investment bank or in the consulting world and want to do startups, hang out with people who are doing startups. Work with them on the side over a long period of time. Years before Ben Smith left A.T. Kearney, he had gotten to know Tim Connors, then at Sequoia Capital, then U.S. Venture Partners and now PivotNorth Capital. It was with Connors and a few other people that he founded his first company, Spoke.

In the end, young people need to realize a career investment is one of the most important investments they will make. It goes well beyond picking a great school and should be part of the relationships and reputation they build every day.

Ben T. Smith, IV (pictured) is a serial entrepreneur, investor, and advisor to technology and media companies. He is the co-founder of and, and a former partner at A.T. Kearney. Ben is available on Mark Boslet is a reporter at peHUB.

About Ben T. Smith, IV

Founder of, investor in and advisor to technology and media companies
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